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In most major European cities, a museum visit is part of every itinerary. In London, it’s probably the National Gallery or the Tate Modern; in Paris, certainly the Louvre; in Madrid, the Museo del Prado. In Berlin, however, it’s not just a single museum that attracts visitors. Instead, it’s Museumsinsel — Museum Island.
In the heart of Berlin, there is an island in the Spree River that is less than half a square mile in area featuring five museums. The island contains no other structures — commercial or otherwise — and access from the nearby subway, bus and tram stops is via five pedestrian bridges. No private vehicles are permitted on the island.
The site, dubbed Berlin’s “Treasure Island,” was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999. In fact, local authorities consider their Museum Island to be one of the world’s greatest museum complexes. It is also one of the city’s more popular cultural attractions. More than 3 million visitors are expected to visit the museums this year.
The structures themselves were built between 1824 and 1930 and are distinguished for a number of reasons. They represent what is considered the evolution of modern museum design. Most of Europe’s great museums were originally royal palaces that were later converted into museums. The structures on Museum Island, however, were believed to be the first specifically designed to house the private collections of the Prussian royal family.
King Friedrich Wilhelm, inspired by the Forum in Ancient Rome, had a vision for the way in which the arts and sciences would be displayed in Germany. As a result, in 1830, the Altes (Old) Museum was built. It was followed by the Neues (New) Museum in 1859, built on the order of King Friedrich Wilhelm IV to house collections of Egyptian and prehistoric art.
Those two were followed in succeeding years by the Alte Nationalgaler (Old National Gallery) in 1876 to house 19th-century European, but mainly German, collections. Here, visitors will now also find Impressionist paintings by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas and Cezanne and sculptures by Rodin.
The baroque-style Bode Museum opened in 1904 offering collections of European Renaissance art. The final museum — and possibly the crown jewel of Museum Island — is the Pergamon Museum, opened in 1930. It houses artifacts from the storied empires of Babylonia, Assyria and Mesopotamia gathered by German archeologists working in what today are Iraq, Syria and Turkey. While formally considered the Museum of Western Asiatic Antiquities, this Pergamon wing takes its name from the spectacular reconstruction of the 6th century B.C. Babylonian Great Altar of Pergamon. It shares the public’s awe with the Market Gate of Miletus and the Ishtar Gate.
These world-class institutions, while devoted to the preservation of fine art, also have a playful spirit. This past spring, one gallery of the Bode Museum was converted into a theater for a whimsical interpretation of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.” With obviously no room for a conventional stage, the performance was given on an elevated runway, much like that used for fashion shows. The audience sat on folding chairs on both sides of the ramp with the first row just six feet from the singers. The orchestra, made up of selected members of the Berlin Symphony, was at one end of the runway while, at the opposite end, the artists made their entrances up a ramp from an improvised “backstage” in an adjoining gallery.
Given the age of the five museum buildings, the fate of Berlin during World War II and its division during the Cold War that followed, it’s no surprise that they barely survived. Anticipating Allied bombings at the start of World War II, German authorities removed most of the art collections. In the violent years that followed, some works were looted, others were lost and some ended up in Moscow.
The buildings themselves were extensively damaged by aerial attack and then from the Russian assault on Berlin that ended World War II in Europe. In addition, Museum Island was located in the communist eastern half of Berlin after the war — behind the Berlin Wall and thus controlled by the Soviet Union — so works suffered considerable neglect as well as terrible battle damage. Today, the great gray columns of the Neues Museum remain pock marked by shrapnel from tank fire and, even inside the grand galleries, some walls were intentionally left laced by bullet holes.
“The architect didn’t want to cover all of them over to remind us of our dark past,” explained one local.
Only upon the reunification of Germany in 1990 could the government move to restore and, in some cases, reconstruct the five museums. A master 15-year plan was drawn up and work on the reconstruction and modernization began in earnest around 12 years ago. To date, the effort has cost the government more than $2 billion, and it is still not completed. It was just three years ago, with the completion of the restoration of the Neues Museum, that all five of the museums were reopened simultaneously.
An Archeological Promenade, a circuit linking the five separate museums with new visitors cafes, a museum shop and other facilities that will make Museum Island an even more significant cultural destination, is still in the works.
German National Tourism Boardwww.germany-tourism.de
Cul“tour”e in Halle (Saale): Dorint Charlottenhof Halle (Saale), the favorite hotel of Hans-Dietrich Genscher, welcomes visitors with its art-nouveau style, hospitality and convenient location for trips through the region. For $174 per person, clients can enjoy two nights in an air-conditioned double room, the Dorint Superior breakfast buffet, one visit to the National Museum of Art of Saxony Anhalt, free use of the Vital Club and more. www.dorint.com
Three Days in Dresden: The Ringhotel Residenz Alt Dresden is close to the historic center of Dresden and is also a convenient place to explore other local surroundings. For stays of two nights or more, the hotel offers a package for $159 per person during low season and $170 per person in high season. The package includes two nights in a double room with breakfast, a welcome drink, one Saxon specialty menu, a 24-hour ticket for the Dresden tram and bus and free use of the sauna, the steam bath and the fitness room. www.residenz-alt-dresden.de
First-Class Package from Radisson: Clients can enjoy first-class accommodations at the Radisson Blu Gewandhaus Hotel, Dresden, with this promotional package. For $299 per person in a double room or $392 per person in a single room, guests spend one night in the four-star Radisson with a three-course dinner menu, a breakfast buffet, a glass of sparkling wine, a welcome amenity and complimentary use of the wellness area with indoor pool, sauna and fitness area. In addition, the package includes one ticket for a wine tour or a sparkling wine tour at Schloss Wackerbarth, plus one ticket for a performance at the Semperoper opera house. www.radissonblu.com/gewandhaushotel-dresden
2/7-13Rhineland Carnival: From Feb. 7-13, Carnival in the Rhineland will offer a stronghold of Rhenish carnival tradition. Fun and games will culminate with a carnival procession with sweets and flowers thrown out to the crowds. www.koelnerkarneval.de/fastelovend-op-englisch.html
6/24Asparagus Festivals: April marks the beginning of Spargelzeit, asparagus season, in Germany, which runs through the feast of St. John the Baptist on June 24. During this time, the vegetable will be harvested in various regions of Germany, and celebrated with events and activities. Visitors can watch the harvest and even join in to help. www.germanfoods.org/consumer/facts/spargelzeit.cfm
9/21-10/6Oktoberfest 2013: The famous annual Oktoberfest will take place from Sept. 21 to Oct. 6 in 2013. The tradition, which first took place in 1810, was originally a horserace and has since evolved to include a parade and beer tents. Now, people from all over the world gather to enjoy the festivities every year. www.oktoberfest2013.com
5/9-12Hamburg Port Anniversary: Hamburg will celebrate the 824th anniversary of its port in 2013, featuring three days of unlimited attractions on the water, on land and in the air. The world’s largest harbor festival will take place May 9-12. www.hamburg-tourism.de/en/events/port-birthday-hamburg/
8/23-25Museum Embankment Festival: Frankfurt will host a Museum Embankment Festival from Aug. 23-25, during which the museums lining the Main’s riverbanks host a multifaceted program with many attractions. Cultural events will please all ages, including the dragon boat race and a riverside fireworks display. www.museumsuferfest.de/start-en
Exploring Leipzig: The past merges with the present in Leipzig, with its old and new city centers featuring trading inns next to shopping malls, the resting place of Bach, Saint Nicholas Church, the Monument to the Battle of the Nations and Gohlis Palace. Explore with this package, featuring three nights with breakfast at a partner hotel, a public city tour, one three-course dinner at a city center restaurant, a visit to the Monument to the Battle of the Nations, a visit to the Forum 1813 and a city guidebook. The offer is valid all year and must be booked four weeks prior to arrival. Prices start at $221. www.germany-tourism.de
Art Journey to Leipzig: Leipzig’s Museum of Fine Arts houses one of Germany’s most important public art collections. Enjoy its offerings with this year-round package, including two nights with breakfast from a partner hotel, a visit to the Museum of Fine Art, a visit to the Grassi Museum of Applied Art and an information package including a city map. The package starts at $137 and must be booked four weeks prior to arrival. www.germany-tourism.de
New and Noteworthy
Henry van de Velde Turns 150: Next year marks the 150th anniversary of Henry van de Velde’s birth, a Belgian-born painter, architect and interior designer who spent the most important part of his career in Germany and had a decisive influence on German architecture and design. To celebrate, the year will highlight his achievements, offering visitors the opportunity to acquaint themselves with van de Velde and his associates by visiting exhibitions and other events based on aspects of early modern art. Sample itineraries can be found online. Many tours feature temporary exhibitions and architectural highlights, offering insight into the many facets of the artist’s work as well as a new side to the towns and cities along the routes. www.vandevelde2013.de